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An Omnivorous Animal Agenda

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by Fred Edwords

We almost died. Our whole species. Between 90,000 and 60,000 years ago Homo sapiens sapiens went through a population bottleneck in which we were down to no more than 10,000 individuals and perhaps as few as 600. We were endangered.

How do scientists know this? Because the genetic diversity of the human subspecies is so low that our differences across the planet are roughly equivalent to that of two neighboring troops of lowland gorillas. We’re all so closely related that there must have been only a few of us a short time ago. Moreover, there are no other subspecies of Homo sapiens still living besides us. Indeed, no other members of the genus Homo have survived. There aren’t even any other Homininas. All of our nearest relatives are extinct. And our entire ancestry is a litter of dead bones: including the vegan chewing machine Paranthropus robustus as well as Australopithecus afarensis and africanus, and Homo rudolfensis, habilis, erectus, ergaster, heidelbergensis, floresiensis, and neanderthalensis. They are simply gone.

We alone survived, and that only barely. Our secret? Flexibility.

We have the brain power and body structure that allows us to live in a range of disparate environments from the equator to the arctic, from parched deserts to lush rain forests, from the depths of canyons to the tops of mountains, from large land masses to tiny islands. Using our brains we gather, hunt, fish, till the soil, domesticate animals, engage in selective breeding of flora and fauna, practice bioengineering, and even create synthetic nourishment through the wonders of chemistry. And our bodies are capable of consuming a wide variety of foods as diverse as fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans, insects, snails, worms, and animal byproducts like mammal milk and eggs. We even eat the eggs of fish.

I could tell you more, but it should be clear by now that adaptability is our middle name. That’s why we’re still here.

So if anyone has the idea that humanity somehow took a moral wrong turn when it started eating other members of the animal kingdom and wearing their skins, feathers, and scales then they’re effectively declaring that a conflict exists between righteousness and survival. Which, from a humanist moral perspective, makes no sense.

Of course I know the counter argument. That was then and this is now. OK. So, what about now?

Well, today the majority of the human population lives in human-created environments called cities. And the necessities of city life as it currently operates can often make strict vegetarianism, and certainly veganism, to varying degrees difficult or inconvenient. Fortunately, due to the vigorous efforts of vegetarian and vegan activists, that inconvenience is lessening in many places. As a result, options continue to open up, allowing larger numbers of people to choose to go meatless for personal health and other reasons. More choice is good—and it offers another example of human flexibility at work.

Where does this leave the moral argument for a meatless diet (not to mention a lifestyle without leather and other animal materials, and even one without house pets)? Only here: that because animals suffer as we do, then our sense of empathy might well be extended to them in a manner that would reduce or end needless suffering.

That’s the key: needless suffering. Our prehistoric and historic ancestors had survival issues that made animal use needful. And even today populations living in certain climates, such as the Inuit in the arctic, simply can’t survive without hunting and fishing. (Moreover, ethical animal experimentation is a current necessity of our modern survival and thriving, and psychologists tell us that certain house pets are good for our emotional well-being.) But it’s often easy enough in many cities and farms today to live vegetarian or vegan so as to reduce that suffering by contributing as little to it as possible.

This isn’t the only or necessarily the best way to reduce animal suffering, however. There are other approaches that could have far greater impact, such as promoting the spaying and neutering of pets in order to reduce the stray and feral populations, working to preserve and expand the habitats of endangered species, and supporting the development of alternative technologies that reduce our dependence on animal products and animal experimentation.  

But the single most effective means for reducing animal suffering (human and non-human alike) is to work vigorously to reduce the human population. We humans, even vegetarian humans, take up space just by living and working, and litter the planet with our garbage. The ecological footprint of Homo sapiens, particularly in the West, is absurdly large. And the size of the global population will reach 7 billion this fall. All over the world more mouths to feed and bodies to clothe add up to more animals suffering and dying.

That’s why I’m less concerned with that hamburger you’re eating than that baby you’re having. My “animal agenda” is directed toward making birth control information and abortion more widely available. Your agenda may be different.  

Fred Edwords is the director of the United Coalition of Reason. He was formerly the executive director of the American Humanist Association and editor of The Humanist magazine.

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